Friday, April 1, 2011

Gigot d'Agneau a la Bretonne (Roast Leg of Lamb with White Beans)

I have always wanted to make a leg of lamb.  In both French and Italian cuisines, a cooked leg of lamb has a certain nostalgia to it.  The leg of lamb immediately evokes memories of Sunday dinners or special occasions, like Easter.  Families and extended families gathered around the table, with the patron of the family at the head of the table, armed with a carving knife and fork, busily working away at carving the meat.

When I cook, I like to picture scenes like the family around the table, even when I am only cooking for myself.  This is particularly true when I am stressed out.  Cooking is a means of stress relief for me because, when I am preparing the food, my focus is solely on the ingredients, the cooking process, and the end result.  Whatever is stressing me out is completely blocked out by a laser-like focus on trying to make a great meal.

In this case, I wanted to prepare a leg of lamb as a means of stress relief, but also as a means of preparing for the upcoming Easter holiday. I wanted to be able to make a leg of lamb for Easter.  A bone-in leg of lamb is an expensive cut of meat, at about $9.00 per pound with a minimum of at least four pounds.  So, I thought I needed a little training before I made this meal for guests on a holiday. My practice was to make Gigot d'Agneau a la Bretonne.

This recipe is centered around a preparation of the leg of lamb as it is done along the shores of Brittany, which places this recipe within the style of "a la Bretonne."  The leg of lamb is studded with slices of garlic and sprigs of thyme.  The leg is seared at high heat for a short period of time (about fifteen to twenty minutes) and then roasted for a good period of time thereafter.  The "a la Bretonne" style of lamb is served with a white kidney bean dish that is studded itself with onions, garlic and tomato.  This is a fairly easy recipe to make and a great way to start learning how to cook a leg of lamb.

Adapted from Anne Willan, The Country Cooking of France, 154-155
Serves 8-10

Ingredients (for the beans):
2 cups of white kidney beans
2 tablespoons of butter
2 onions finely chopped
2 or 3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 or 3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup of dry white wine
2 to 3 tablespoons of flat leaf parsley, chopped

Ingredients (for the lamb):
1 four to five pound leg of lamb
2 garlic cloves (at least)
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 tablespoons of butter (at least)

Ingredients (for the gravy):
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cup of veal or beef broth

1.  Cook the beans.  Add the butter to a medium sized saute pan. Add the onions and saute until soft, but not browned, about five to seven minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, garlic and white wine.  Add the kidney beans.  Mix carefully as as to not break the beans.  Simmer over medium heat, stirring often until nearly all of the moisture has evaporated, which should take about twenty minutes.

2.  Prepare the lamb.  While you are working on the bean dish, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.  Prepare the lamb by trimming off any skin and all but a thin layer of fat.  Cut one garlic clove into sticks (I actually cut about four small ones).  Poke small holes in the meat and insert the sticks of garlic with small sprigs of thyme.  Butter all sides of the leg of lamb.  Then salt and pepper the lamb liberally.

3.  Cook the lamb.  Sear the lamb in the oven for fifteen to twenty minutes.  Lower the eat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and continue to roast the leg of lamb often for about forty to fifty minutes.  I put a cup of beef broth and two cups of water in the bottom of the roasting pan so that I could baste the lamb often.  By the end of the cooking process, most of that liquid had evaporated.  I basted the leg about every seven to eight minutes.  A thermometer reading of 140 degrees Fahrenheit will provide for pink meat and 160 degrees for well done. 

4.  Finish the dish.  Transfer the lamb to a carving board and cover it loosely with foil.  Leave it stand while you make the gravy.    For the gravy, discard all but 1 table spoon of fat from the roasting pan.  Add that to a sauce pan with the wine and bring it to a boil.  Add the broth and continue boiling until the gravy is reduced and concentrated.  This should take about five to eight minutes.

Serve the lamb by carving it into thin slices.  Set the meat on a large platter, with the beans on the side and spoon a little gravy over the lamb.

For my first effort at making a leg of lamb, I have to say it was a relatively good success.  I did not get the dark crust on the outside, which was the result of two things that I did differently than the recipe in the cookbook.  First, I covered the lamb during the searing, which I did to avoid a lot of butter spattering in the oven.  Second, I basted the lamb with the mixture of beef broth and water, rather than butter.  Still, the end result was incredibly delicious.  I've learned a lot and will put that new knowledge to my next effort at making this dish, which will be very soon.


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